Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Minarets are our bayonets"

Is India also a break-out nation like Turkey? Well certainly India has a high-growth, high HDI, developed section (perhaps equal to the 77 million Turks) and then we have a one billion, desperately poor and lost-in-stone age section that has no equal anywhere. 

Is Modi like Erdogan, a man who rose from within the ranks of the religious shock-troops and took charge of a secular country, and helped liberate its Islamic soul? This brings us to mind a famous statement that the once-upon-a-time lemonade seller had made:

The SVP backs its claim by citing a famous remark by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once implied that the construction of mosques and minarets is part of a strategy for the Islamization of Europe. The pro-Islamist Erdogan said: “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army.”

Ruchir Sharma is the Head of Emerging Markets at Morgan Stanley so he is expected to be a votary for Modi. However at the heart of the polemic below we see the same fear that secularists feel everywhere, the good old days when they could wag their fingers at the unwashed masses is over. They will now be silenced with blasphemy laws and brick-bats. The Hindu Brotherhood has arisen out of democracy but it may well lead to a soft-theocratic state where the principles of a liberal democracy (protection of minorities, tolerance of dissent) may not be respected. Just like Turkey.

Modi is a rivetingly blunt speaker, but he is also the Indian political master of new media technologies. At traditional Indian political rallies like those we witnessed in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, half the crowd shows up only long enough to watch the candidate's helicopter stir dust storms in the landing field, and those who stay (including those paid to stay) can barely hear the crackling microphone over the din.   The new media are much clearer. Since the election of 2009, the share of Indians with TV has risen from 53% to 63%, the number online has risen from 69 to 213 million, the number with smart phones from 3 to 70 million. Membership on Facebook is up from 10 to 100 million, on YouTube from 5 to 60 million, and Modi is all over these platforms and more. After we left Uttar Pradesh, Modi returned in the form of the life-size hologram he has used to project himself before some 1,500 rallies and 15 million voters during the campaign.

Lord, satisfy the hope Modi has unleashed. His political machine has been hammering home the message of how he brought new business, new roads, new jobs and less crime to Gujarat, and now everyone outside Gujarat seems to know all this is true. They see Modi as an efficient strongman who will restore growth, lower the price of onions and, as one voter put it "make the trains run on time."

Tiwari ticks off the usual gripes against Congress, including corruption, inflation, and crime. The folks he knows around Allahabad are switching to Modi because "the public needs change, and Modi is their guy." Not far off, in the village of Saidabad, there is no electricity at one in the afternoon when the sun is high and the temperature hits 43 degrees Celsius, and people speak of how Modi will turn the fans back on. Modi hardly discourages this optimism, stealing Congress's socialist thunder by promising every Indian a cool brick house with a toilet.

Some of the roads along the Ganges are so crowded or just so broken that on our road trip we often average less than 30 kilometres an hour, but so many people living along it are now hopeful that Modi will fill life's potholes. In the town of Pali, Rakesh Kumar Verma is fed up after winning two masters degrees but ending up underemployed at the age of 42 because "the goons are in control." Loan officers skim 15% of a one lakh loan for themselves. The bribes required to get even menial jobs make the jobs not worth taking. Verma gets by selling cheap jewellery. But Modi cleaned up corruption in Gujarat, he can handle the goons. My colleagues start joking, every time a window jams or a toilet won't flush, "Modi will fix it."

To many voters, though, Modi is more than a repair man. He was once a tea seller in a railway station, but now he is the self-made leader of the world's largest democracy, a harbinger of disruptive change. In the district of Bhigunia, we crawl along a pontoon bridge over the Ganges to a tiny settlement accessible in no other way. On the far side we meet a young Brahmin, university educated and upper caste but not working, because it would be too embarrassing to take a job below his station in a place so small, where his family is well known. Under Modi though, the hope is it will be different. Pathetic job creation under Congress will give way to job growth. The Brahmin can go find work in a city, where he is anonymous. Caste barriers are eroded by urbanization and industrialization.

Traveling these bumpy roads, it becomes clear that the Modi wave did not spread only on modern channels. One high member of the Gandhi clan once allowed that the very poor communicate at a level that "we", the literate and privileged, don't understand. Perhaps it was this subaltern frequency that transmitted the Modi sunbeam from the smartphone elite and the TV-watching middle class to the rest of the 814 million. The candidate was relentless, too, showing up on so many stages voters wondered if there was more than one of him, not even counting the holograms. In Bihar we hear him speak in the town of Hajipur and he is as always spellbinding, intimate, hilarious. He says headlines scream in Gujarat if the power goes off for a few minutes, but celebrate in Bihar if the power goes on for a few hours.

Modi emerges as something of an old-fashioned strongman, delivering a multimedia message of modern development. What goes unsaid is equally revealing. Modi and the BJP have been largely silent on flammable foreign policy and sectarian issues, the words "Pakistan" and "Muslims" have fallen from the party lexicon. Asked about how Modi will deal with Muslims, many of whom fear the BJP, the farmer Tiwari cites an interview in which Modi dismissed such questions as "the language of those who want to divide India." Besides, Tiwari suggests, sectarian strife is common in his part of the world and that in Gujarat there had been no further violence once the scores were settled in 2002.

Modi now seems set to govern all of India, the 150 million Muslims included and there is reason to be cautious. Though the popular vote for the BJP is expected to come in at the highest for any single party in three decades, it is still just around a third of the total vote. Two thirds of India and 90% of Muslims probably did not vote for Modi or BJP.

Modi has promised the moon. In the final weeks he often targeted his promise that "better days are ahead" to the vast population of Indians under the age of 28, including the roughly 100 million who were voting for the first time in this election. The difficulty is that to create enough jobs for all these youths, India needs to create 10 million jobs a year for the next five years, or four times more than it has been creating over the past five years. It will be virtually impossible for Modi to hit the ground running on this challenge, because his first task should be to contain India's double digit inflation, which means restrained government spending, high interest rates, and job growth remaining weak until inflation is whipped.

What then? It's easy to imagine jobless, disappointed youths getting angry, and the hardcore Hindu fundamentalists reviving their old accusations that it is Muslims, with their high birth rate, who are to blame for India's "population bomb" and the unemployment problem it is now creating. In a tense environment, it's hard to know whether Modi would fuel the tension through innuendo, allow it to fester by remaining silent, or defuse it by trying to quiet the mob. 
 On the road the Modi wave keeps bringing to mind the tale of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another former street vendor (lemonade, not tea) who emerged from a pious political sect (Islamic, not Hindu) to become a self-made prime minister much to chagrin of the secular elite. In his early years, Erdogan shelved his social and cultural agenda to focus on stabilizing the inflation ridden economy, and became widely popular. After taking office with 34% vote in 2002 elections, Erdogan was reelected with 50% in 2011. At the height of the boom, Erdogan's name rang throughout the land, his voice dominated all discussion echoes of Modi in India today.  But then success went to Erdogan's head, he stretched two terms into three, his autocratic instincts began bubbling to the surface as he pushed an increasingly Islamist social agenda. To stifle the resulting protests, Erdogan rolled out riot police, blamed foreign conspiracies, rallied his pious supporters to counter demonstrations, and recently attempted to ban Twitter, which his opponents are using to organize the anti-Erdogan campaign. One wonders if one day India's new political messiah may also go the Erdogan way. For now, as in Turkey during Erdogan's early years, India is focused on Modi's promise that "better days are ahead."

The writer is head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and author of 'Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles'



No comments:

Post a Comment